Let Freedom Ring Must Reads
As incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prepares to open the new Congress, members of both parties are on the edge of their seats, hoping he will come through with his promise to return the chamber to regular order, with open debate and an empowered minority.
But for those who were around in 2007, McConnell’s vows should sound familiar. They’re nearly identical to the promises a slightly younger Harry Reid made when he took over the Senate seven years ago.
A side-by-side analysis of the two leaders’ comments on how they would run the Senate shows striking similarities on a number of issues, including promoting bipartisanship, giving power back to the Senate’s committees, working on Fridays, granting rights to the minority party, and working with the president. The similarities raise questions as to whether McConnell can succeed in coming through on these promises where Reid did not.
THE VOTERS WANT AN END TO PARTISAN GRIDLOCK
Just days after the midterm elections that made McConnell the next majority leader, the Kentucky Republican held a press conference, telling reporters that voters had asked for a change, an end to the “dysfunction in Washington.”
“When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement,” McConnell said, forecasting a new Senate in which his Republicans would work with the minority to pass legislation.
But Reid, whom Republicans have vilified for passing messaging bills with only Democratic support and changing the rules of the Senate to undermine minority rights, gave an incredibly similar assessment of the 2006 elections and his mandate when he took over the Senate in January 2007. “Last November, the voters sent us a message. They sent this message to Democrats and they sent this message to Republicans: The voters are upset with Congress and the partisan gridlock,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “The voters want a government that focuses on their needs. The voters want change. Together, Democrats and Republicans must deliver that change.”
In the years since, Republicans and even some Democrats have accused Reid of presiding over the most dysfunctional Senate in history, one in which the majority pushed through legislation without Republican amendments or support and ignored hundreds of bills passed by the Republican majority in the House. Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the dysfunction, but there’s no question that the “partisan gridlock” that Reid described before taking the reins of the upper chamber remains today.
EMPOWERING THE COMMITTEES
One of McConnell’s biggest promises to members is to restore the power of the Senate’s committees and their chairs. McConnell vowed in a January floor speech entitled “Restoring the Senate” that should he become majority leader, he would let the committees work together to create legislation, allowing full participation by members on both sides of the aisle and ensuring resolutions that are “broadly acceptable to both sides.”
“The committee process is a shadow of what it’s been,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Major legislation is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the majority leader’s conference room and then dropped on the floor with little or no opportunity for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight.”
But Reid too promised when he took over the Senate to restore power to the committees, which he called “the foundation of this institution.” The concept of a return to regular order, where committee chairs and ranking members would be allowed to do their work, was central to Reid’s vision for the 110th Congress.
That isn’t what happened. Under Reid’s tenure, as Republicans like to remind voters, the Senate went four years without passing a budget resolution. And the Appropriations Committee hasn’t passed all 12 of its bills through the upper chamber once in those seven years.
The Republican conference’s incoming chairs, who will be officially selected in January, are already jumping at the prospect of being allowed to do their work in the next Congress. But based on Reid’s experience, McConnell will have his work cut out for him in ensuring that that happens.
WORKING ON FRIDAYS
Both leaders promised that the Senate would work on Fridays. “Factory workers, shopkeepers in America’s malls, schoolteachers, police officers, miners, welders, and businessmen and women work at least five days a week. Shouldn’t we, here in Washington, where we do our business, in this laboratory we call the Senate, do the same?” Reid said in January 2007.
That statement might elicit scoffing from anyone who has been watching the Senate over the last few years.
Reid started out making good on his word. In 2007, senators worked on 32 Fridays; for every week that they were in session, Reid’s Senate worked on four out of five of them. But those numbers dwindled steadily over time and by 2014 they’d dropped by more than half. In his final year as majority leader, the Senate worked on Friday just 15 times.
McConnell has said he will change that, forcing members to stick around for Friday morning votes before leaving for the weekend. That system can lead to some late Thursday night sessions, but it forces members to compromise, McConnell said on the floor last January. “Somebody who has two dozen amendments at noon starts to prioritize those amendments around midnight. They start talking about what it would take to get unanimous consent.”
Still, as Reid discovered, little has as much power over members of Congress as jet fumes. And with at least three of his members considering presidential campaigns next year and another half-dozen running in tough 2016 races, McConnell will face pushback on an extended Senate schedule.
GIVING POWER TO THE MINORITY
Along with the need for committee work, the rallying cry among members of Congress of both parties over the last two years has been a desire for amendments. Reid has frequently “filled the tree” on legislation big and small, preventing members from either party from adding amendments of their own. That move more than any other, members say, has diminished the power of the minority—which Reid once held up as critical to the functioning of the Senate.
“We found that a one-party town simply doesn’t work,” Reid said in 2007. “We know from experience that majorities come and they go. Majorities are very fragile, and majorities must work with minorities to make that lasting change.”
The work with the minority has been rarer and rarer in Reid’s Senate—thanks, Democrats say, to Republicans’ desire to attach irrelevant but controversial amendments to the majority’s legislation. Republicans, of course, pin the blame on Democrats.
But McConnell has said that he will allow an “open amendment process” when he takes over the Senate in January. “It’s time to allow senators on both sides to more fully participate in the legislative process,” he said.
Keeping to his word, the incoming majority leader told reporters at the close of the 113th Congress that his majority’s first bill would be one to authorize the Keystone XL Pipeline and that he hoped members would “offer energy-related amendments,” but that there would be “no effort to try to micromanage the amendment process.”
Reid’s tenure wasn’t completely without minority amendments. Even on some major legislation, including the immigration-reform bill the Senate passed in 2013, both sides went to the floor with their amendments and debated and voted on them. In fact, McConnell himself pointed to the bipartisan amendment process on the 2014 budget, a process that is frequently cited by members of both parties as a shining example—and perhaps the only one in this last Congress—of how the Senate should work.
But Reid has also acknowledged that some must-pass bills could be destroyed by a completely free and open amendment process, as McConnell has called for. Senate Democratic leaders passed a government spending bill, a defense authorization, and a tax-break reauthorization bill in the last two weeks of their majority without any amendments—Democratic or Republican—for exactly that reason. Whether McConnell can have his major legislation and amend it too is unclear.
When he took power, Reid did not signal that he would invoke the nuclear option. Two years before he became majority leader, he warned his colleagues about the precedent that would be set by doing just that. And when he took over in 2007, Reid emphasized to his Republican colleagues: “The Founding Fathers created an institution that protects this minority, and we will respect our Constitution and those protections.”
But by 2013, he found himself in a different situation entirely.
“Gridlock has consequences and they’re terrible. It’s not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body, the United States Senate, it’s bad for our country. It’s bad for our national security and bad for economic security. That’s why it’s time to get the Senate working again. Not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority but for the good of the United States of America,” Reid told colleagues on the Senate floor that November. “It’s time to change. It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”
Already McConnell, who has railed against Reid’s use of the nuclear option to change the Senate’s rules, is considering keeping the change in place. His members are torn on the issue, which will be decided sometime early next year.